Crab fishermen working off the Northern California coast have managed to free a gray whale that was tangled in a large fishing line and that had disappeared after a previous rescue attempt, federal wildlife officials said.
Fisherman Mark Anello was out on his 48-foot wooden crab boat Thursday about 3 1/2 miles off the coast near Bodega Bay, located about 67 miles north of San Francisco.
A fourth-generation fisherman, Anello noticed something odd near his boat: three buoys floating nearby were moving. He motored closer to investigate.
Anello and two others on his boat the Point Ommaney found the orange and white buoys connected to a whale that measured close to the length of his vessel, said Tony Anello, Mark's father.
"They come up slowly alongside the whale, and the whale started fighting at first," the elder Anello said. "Then the whale decided to calm down."
Using 12-foot, bamboo poles with hooks on the end, Mark Anello and his crew spent 90 minutes freeing the 40-ton mammal, which had been nicknamed "June" by rescuers who had earlier tried to free the marine mammal.
Once the creature was free from the ropes, nets and buoys it took a lap around the vessel.
"The whale circled the boat, surfaced and took off," Tony Anello said. "It was like it was saying thank you."
The whale was first spotted off the Orange County coast April 17, hundreds of miles from where it was ultimately rescued, dragging several buoys attached to a net.
Rescuers attempted to free it at the time, but it went missing until it was spotted off the coast of Monterey County.
Monica DeAngelis, the federal marine mammal biologist who led earlier rescue attempts, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a network of volunteer disentanglement teams trained to rescue animals in distress.
She said the captain and the crew that rescued June were not part of the network, and that in general she would advise anyone who encounters a tangled whale to report the animal's location and stay with it but wait for trained rescuers to arrive, not least because such a massive animal can be dangerous.
"They're actually quite fortunate that they did not get injured," DeAngelis said. Still, she called Anello a "steward of the sea": "I'm not going to rain on their parade. They did something amazing, and they probably did save the life of this animal."
Generally, tampering with whales qualifies as a federal offense under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But DeAngelis said Anello and his crew were exempted under the law's "good Samaritan" clause.
Tony Anello echoed DeAngelis' fears, saying his son and crew could have been hurt by the large creature. But he also said while fishing gear was the cause of the whale's woe, many fishermen care deeply about the sea and a sustainable fishery.
"There are fishermen who care about the ocean," he said. "We are stewards of the ocean and want a sustainable fishery."